Paul Higate and Mats Utas (editors), Private Security in Africa: from the global assemblage to the everyday.
This timely book, edited by Paul Higate and Mats Utas, follows a scholarly trend of recent years and investigates the fascinating world of private security provision in African countries. It thus seeks to respond to the rapidly changing realities on the ground that saw private security venture far beyond the military realm and increasingly diversify, in terms of both territorial reach and the nature of available services. Academic discussions can, quite naturally, only ever trail these developments. However, far from limiting itself to the confines of commercial security enterprises that operate across the continent, this volume rightfully embraces the malleability of what constitutes private security in the first place and thereby raises exigent questions about the entanglements between the public and private, the state and non-state, the global and local, as well as the systemic and everyday. It sets out to sketch what the editors call 'new geographies of power and security' (p. 1) in meticulous detail. The now well-established notion of 'security assemblages', popularized by Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams some eight years earlier (who also contribute the first empirical chapter), serves as a theoretical frame for subsequent chapters and affords the publication its coherent shape.
A concise book, it comprises ten judicious chapters by high-calibre authors in their field, most of whom offer engaging ethnographic detail on the idiosyncrasies of security arrangements in a plurality of settings, from a gold mine in Tanzania, secret societies in Sierra Leone, armed response officers in South Africa's Durban and the shadowy socio-political networks of Mungiki in Kenya to the abundance of private security operators in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to mention only a few. This impressive geographical breadth is one of the volume's greatest strengths and its compelling credo can be heard throughout every single chapter: security landscapes in African countries can be understood only through their innate dynamism, their fluidity and the close interlocking of multi-scalar partisan interests that see the global interpenetrate the everyday in extraordinary ways. This line of argument is admittedly not new, but the skilful composition of the book makes it stick out as one of the most comprehensive efforts to date to explore private security explicitly across African countries. In doing so, it never fails to show a curious and sensitive eye for sociohistorical particularity and to tell stories beyond crude stereotypes of mercenarism, but also to draw larger connections with developments in the global political economy.
One of the key contentions of the book is that the expansion of private security in African countries is not simply tantamount to a retreat of the state-- as is concluded far too often--but rather that it is precisely the veneer of such a public/private binary that continues to obfuscate the complex hybridity of actually existing security arrangements. The book harnesses this eclectic and even unstable terrain to present readers with a remarkable cross-section of private security alliances spanning the continent. We hear about local vigilantes sponsored by global capital to safeguard the uninterrupted extraction of resources from Tanzania (Abrahamsen and Williams), clan-based militias-turned- companies that act as proxies for foreign donors in Somalia (William Reno), and Sierra Leonean ex-combatants who are being recruited as an expendable security labour force for British contractors in Iraq (Mynster Christensen). The elasticity of the assemblage approach allows for these varied yet evocative stories to be told in a nuanced fashion, without ever flattening the important differences between them.
Particularly praiseworthy in this book is the conscious focus on ethnography as perhaps the best-suited method for investigating the versatile mosaic of private security configurations on the African continent (and beyond). Most chapters fulfil this promise masterfully with a high degree of ethnographic acumen and the presentation of never less than captivating material that transports readers to everyday scenes where security relations are creatively (re-)assembled. Ethnography, it is argued, poses a counterbalance to much more low- resolution images of security politics by 'inserting understandings of everyday processes of emergence and becoming' (Jacob Rasmussen, p. 121). And, indeed, the copious descriptive material presented is without doubt what remains with the reader the longest and most vividly. Notwithstanding the fact that the balance of some contributions is at times liberally tilted towards empirical panoply rather than theory, a number of authors do try to enrich the received wisdom of assemblage thinking with conceptually productive questions about racialization (Christensen), performances (Tessa Diphoorn) and political becoming (Rasmussen).
To readers familiar with the contributors' existing scholarly work, the book as a whole may promise little novelty, and, indeed, overall it is not as theoretically ambitious as one may wish. However, it represents an indispensable resource and springboard for those wishing to delve deeper into the maze of private security provision. Lastly, it is essential reading not only for everyone with a specialization in security in African countries but also for those with a keen interest in the inner workings of private security on a global scale.
University of Oxford
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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